16 November 2001

Keep swards low to avoid winter kill

By Robert Davies

Wales correspondent

WET, mild weather and disruption of the away wintering system could see many lowland livestock farms go into winter with over proud swards and care is needed to avoid winter kill.

"Temperatures have stayed unusually high and grass has kept growing, but heavy rainfall has made it difficult to graze with cattle," explains Bryan Evans of the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research.

Whether producers are just unwilling to take tack sheep this year or are prevented from doing so by movement regulations, high grass winter grass cover is, therefore, a possibility.

"Many farms import tack sheep to mop up herbage and set up pastures for next spring. Where this is not an option, cattle should be used to ensure the chances of winter kill are minimised," says Mr Evans who manages IGERs grassland technology transfer project.

He advises grazing swards down to 5cm (2in) before the year end to prevent frost damage and rotting caused by fungi and moulds.

"Dead material will reduce pasture quality for grazing or silage next spring, leading to the more rapid appearance of weed grasses and reduced sward longevity."

Where cattle have to be used, he suggests concentrated grazing for short periods. Heavy stocking will force animals to eat the older and less palatable lower parts of stems and leaves where rotting starts.

"Use electric fencing to minimise walking over grazed areas. Cow tracks will be useful, but when they are not available fence backwards from the area furthest from the field access, rather than strip grazing out into the field.

"Remove cattle to drier, less easily poached ground or housing as soon as daily grazing is finished, after two or three hours.

"Pasture with new autumn grown grass will not suffer such severe winter damage and can be grazed down at next springs first grazing, so give priority to fields with heavy or old grass cover."

Topping should only be used as a last resort. Rotting herbage lying on the surface will damage the grass and clover underneath.

The wet autumn has also encouraged weeds to grow, particularly docks, in new reseeds and prevented effective weed control. Where this is the case, Mr Evans advises being ready for a weed blitz, as soon as conditions allow, next spring. &#42

Stock long grass with a large number of cattle for a short time, advises Bryan Evans (below).

EXCESS GRASS

&#8226 Risk of sward damage.

&#8226 Graze longest grass.

&#8226 Stock heavily.